She could be fierce. She could be scathing. But when famed New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael had something to say, people listened. Filmmaker Rob Garver delves into her life and career in a way that leaves no room for ambiguity. Even at her most venomous, Kael’s writing was driven by a passion to see film transcend its limitations and better itself. Out with the trite musicals and romantic comedies that toyed with the viewers’ emotions and mostly played it safe; in with the daring cinema that broke from conventions.
What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is a documentary for lovers of cinema. In the first half hour, we’re treated to what must be more than 100 film snippets from just about every era and genre the 20th century had to offer. Garver parallels Kael’s life and personality with heroines from the golden age of cinema, like actress Ann Sheridan, whose pithy comebacks were analogous to the wit Kael wielded in her reviews. There are also a few photographic records of her early life. So, it’s a welcome style, considering that Kael lived and breathed the movies.
Once she’d established a name for herself at McCall’s, her first job at a high-circulation magazine, there were plenty of television appearances and other archival footage for Garver to draw on, and the rapid-fire editing style (showcasing film after film after film) settles into a less frenetic pace.
Born on a chicken farm in Petaluma, California, in 1919, Kael remembers that her earliest cinema experience was seeing a silent film. The documentary benefits from the narrated writings of Kael, who died in 2001, and we learn that, from her first glimpse of the silver screen, she knew she wanted to be in that world.
That’s not how things turned out, at first. As passionate about great literature as she was about cinema, she tried her hand at writing dramatic plays. By the accounts given in the film, these were rather dry, lifeless affairs, and she soon gave it up. While living in Berkeley, California, in the 1950s, she published her first film review in City Lights magazine, after the editor overheard her arguing passionately about Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight. From there she began writing for other magazines and broadcast her reviews locally on public radio, a gig for which she was never paid. But she became a fixture on Berkeley radio.
Even at this early stage, she was contradictory, often going against critical consensus to praise or lambaste a film. In her final broadcast for the station, KPFA, she lamented that the portrayal of T.E. Lawrence in director David Lean’s heralded Lawrence of Arabia was reduced to an arrogant figure with a Christ complex, rather than the passionate man of letters she knew from his writings. She ended the broadcast affirming that her reviews were worth more than “coffee with the management,” and that if the station wanted her to continue airing them, it could pay her.
Her caustic attacks on the movies she loathed prompted a lot of hate mail over the years, but she also received a lot of praise. After being fired at one publication for her contrary opinion, another was always there, willing to give her a chance. She wrote for The New Republic until it refused to publish her glowing review of Bonnie and Clyde; she promptly sold the piece to The New Yorker, securing a post at the magazine that she held from 1968 to her retirement in 1991. Her review, according to the documentary, is what made the film a success with audiences.
Kael could make or break a movie and make or break a filmmaker’s career. Lean, in archive footage, tells of how she berated him over Lawrence of Arabia during a critics’ luncheon, and he was so distraught that he stopped making movies for a while. Clashing, once again with other prominent critics, she gave a thrashing to Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated 2001: A Space Odyssey, infamously summing it up as cop-out that follows a hackneyed sci-fi formula. “There is an intelligence out there in space, controlling your destiny from ape to angel,” she wrote. “So just follow the slab.”
On the other hand, when she liked something, she really got behind it: horror icon Brian De Palma’s The Fury, for instance, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, which premiered at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 14, 1972, a date she compared favorably with May 29, 1913, the day Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring made music history.
Fast-paced and packed with interviews with film critics, theater owners, and filmmakers, What She Said crams a lot into its run time. What emerges is a portrait from the outside in, of a commanding voice in criticism who, whether you agreed with her or not, was authentic. Reading Kael, one interviewee states, is like seeing the movie again for the first time. She was among the top tier of critics, the likes of which we haven’t seen or heard since. She even inspired a generation of younger critics who became known as “Paulettes.” But her skill was in getting the audience to think critically about cinema. Even those on the receiving end of her ire ( Jerry Lewis said she never had a kind word for him) respected her honesty. This isn’t so much about Kael, the person, but about Kael the writer. But it leaves you wondering whether or not you can really separate one from the other. It’s about exactly what it says it is. — Michael Abatemarco